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Tasting for Beginners, or the Uninitiated (or Terrified)


I must be clear – I don’t claim to be an expert here, I’m just an ordinary Jo.  I don’t even like wine, which as I understand it makes me a bit of freak compared to the rest of womankind.  So, I very definitely had to learn to drink whisky.  I always liked the idea of it, it just seemed so classy and sophisticated.   I’d watched impossibly calm and clearly experienced gentlemen roll their whisky glasses, eye the spirit, sip, hold and swallow then proclaim all a manner of tasting notes, such as honey, cereal, peaches, rubber, fishing nets and/or fresh laundry.  I’d look at my glass and think “Eh?”

After more than a few bumpy starts, the trick, I learned, is to take your time.  Rushing will only ruin the experience for you and you’re more likely to do yourself a mischief by chucking it back as though you were horking a tequila shot.  This doesn’t do the dram any justice at all as all you’re getting is the ethanol burn.  Ouch.  I’d also strongly advise not trying to add soft drinks (such as cola) to ‘soften the blow’, as this has a good chance of making the dram taste pretty unpleasant.   I know of one person who tried to calm the salt-smoke and medicinal Laphroaig with a slosh of gingerbeer, I kid you not.

No.  Just no.

Moving on, I’ve tried to write a simple beginner’s guide below, but there are many wonderful tutorials, books and guides available online and off, and of course any distillery worth its malt will have tours with a mini masterclass in tasting at the end (these are great, by the way – if you’ve never been on one you need to put it on your list of things to do!).

So let’s pour our glass, a finger’s width should do it.  Firstly, we should observe the colour.  This will eventually give you an inkling into what to expect and usually indicates the kind of cask your spirit matured in.  Is it pale, golden or darker amber?   Swirling the liquid inside the glass is another clue into the taste to come – is it viscous, running back down into the glass as though it were a thin oil?  Does it swirl around lightly or does it look like it has a bit of weight to it?  (Don’t get too enthusiastic and splash it on yourself – not that I’ve done that.  Ahem.)

Now the nose – or in layman’s terms, giving it a good sniff.   Open your mouth slightly as you inhale the aroma as this will enhance your sense of smell.  There will be an overwhelming initial first scent, followed by more subtle ones.  Trying to pick them out is fun – remember, there are no wrong or right answers.

Now for the tasting.  Sip it gently, and don’t swallow immediately.  Allow the spirit to warm on your tongue before swallowing to experience that all important transforming finish.  Some whiskies get more complex the longer they are left in the open air (good old oxidisation) so you definitely need to take your time and have another taste in a bit.

A good final tip is that adding a splash of water can soften and release the layers of a whisky so its a good idea to have another taste.   Take your time getting to know your new friend, don’t forget to make many new different ones and before long you’ll be picking out the floral peaches or beachy tar of a whisky like a champ.  Whisky is lovely and is the reason we do what we do here at Spirits By Post. Enjoy!

Slàinte mhath!


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